His best friend

Late this morning a man, homeless or close to it, walked up to a McDonald’s with a dachshund by his side. The animal, like the knit cap atop the man’s head, was two-tone: red and white for the cap, black and tan for the dog.

The man knelt and carefully attached the dachshund’s lead to one of the four bolts forming the base of the restaurant’s flagpole, stripped off his navy-blue jacket to reveal a puke-colored t-shirt (with breast pocket), and began tucking the jacket around his short-haired companion.

The man went inside and emerged two minutes later with a warm sandwich. He knelt again. He undid the yellow paper from around the sandwich and gently placed it on the ground – sandwich weighting paper, paper keeping the sandwich clean. As the dog began his meal, the man went back inside.

The man knelt again just inside the door and hung his head. It was the restaurant’s secondary entrance, so it was unlikely anyone would see him there. Some minutes later he rose and went to the table where his own food waited.

War should be a well-balanced meal

Modern American warriors seem to fall into two camps, the “kill ‘em all” macho machines and the “be kind and they will love us” humanitarians. The truth is that neither extreme will ever get us where we need to be.

omnivorouswarfare

Operation Dinner Out [1]

I read “The Kill Company” when it was fresh on the rack in 2009. That was the moment I decided to subscribe to The New Yorker.

It’s a great piece of reporting (even if its author confuses “insure” and “ensure”) concerning Iraqi deaths during Operation Iron Triangle in 2006. Those deaths were murders, and the American servicemen who pulled the triggers have been convicted.[2]

The colonel in charge of the operation (Michael D. Steele, the inspiration for Jason Isaacs’ faux-Georgia drawl in Black Hawk Down) was not present and did not order the killings. Yet they effectively ended his career advancement. The article, which asks if his kill-centric rhetoric set the stage for a massacre, suggests that the real reason for the sudden dead-end was a philosophical rift between the warrior (Steele) and the rebuilder (another Army officer, General Peter Chiarelli).

That rift is what I really want to talk about.[3]

Borrowing from signs put up as an Army joke, Steele’s people become the “carnivores,” Chiarelli’s the “herbivores.” The meat-eaters want to show the enemy (and everyone else in the AO) that they are not to be trifled with. The meat-eaters are more concerned with making sure American troops stay alive, to the point that even when capturing the enemy seems next door to a slam dunk, it’s better to shoot him in his tracks (barring an actual surrender). The vegetarians, on the other hand, want to minimize Iraqi casualties to show that we are a benevolent people. They notice a correlation between water/power outages and enemy attacks, so they prioritize service expansion and building projects.

And, of course, those two worldviews think they have to go to war against each other.

Roots in an Ugly Past

Like a lot of things in our nation’s current military and political climate, I think both extremes come out of Vietnam. Both sides see it as a cautionary tale, but which part is “cautionary” varies based on which side you ask.

The connection is most tenuous for the carnivores, as their tradition predates the Vietnam conflict. Even so, I promise you that at least some of them are so loud about being the biggest, baddest swinging clods in the neighborhood because they believe our failure to be that in Vietnam is what lost that war and brought shame on this country.

For the herbivores, it’s the opposite. They see how Westmoreland turned swaths of country into free-fire zones, displacing our supposed allies and destroying their homes so that they could either become permanent refugees or join the Viet Cong. And when they look at that (among other bizarre failings of tactics and humanity), they think they see why we lost in Vietnam. For them, the key is to be the good soldier, the friend the locals will want to walk hand-in-hand with, helping us to help them.

The thing is, they’re both right about what we did wrong. And both extremes are, themselves, also wrong.

The Cafeteria Tactician

Francis J. “Bing” West, a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine officer, put a book out in 2011 called The Wrong War. It is specifically about current events in Afghanistan, a country he has visited six times during the present conflict. And while Afghanistan and Iraq are quite different in many respects, some of the same basics apply.

West’s thesis is pretty simple: We need to shift away from aid, which builds dependency and actually sows conflict amongst the groups vying for our dollars, and instead focus on kicking the heinies of those who oppose us. Kick ‘em hard and kick ‘em all over the map. Keep kicking ‘em and do it so soundly that they know we will always beat ‘em – and so that our allies will know they too can beat ‘em and keep beating ‘em when we’ve left.

Mark West up as a carnivore then, eh?

Well, yeah. But that’s only half of it. See, West is speaking from personal experience. He took part in another Vietnam, a tiny Vietnam war concurrent with but very different from Westmoreland’s. West was with the first Combined Action Platoon, a USMC enterprise that put tiny volunteer units into South Vietnamese villages to fight alongside the locals while protecting them from the VC. A far cry from the scorched-earth policy that harmed allies as well as enemies throughout the rest of the country – including the Iron Triangle of Vietnam, which was presumably the namesake of Steele’s now regrettable operation.

West wrote a book about that platoon back in 1972. It’s called The Village, and though it went unnoticed at the time it is now rightly considered a vital work in the Corps.

At one point, a Marine taking a walk stumbled onto an orphan being beaten by his “auntie,” the woman who housed and clothed him as a sort of male Cinderella. The next door neighbor accosted the Marine. In West’s words: “Since he was big and rich, the woman asked, why didn’t he do something about it?”

He did. He bartered the boy away from his abuser and took him into the Marine encampment. Soon the boy, whom the Marines called Joe, was inviting the other village children to join the Marines for breakfast on a rotating basis – and to do the washing up after.

West sums up:

The Marines held no illusions that they might reap significant military benefits from the goodwill they were gaining in the village when the schoolboys told their parents about their eating adventure. The Americans were not trying to win the hearts and minds of the villagers so that they would rise up and drive out the Viet Cong. They did not expect the average farmer or housewife to provoke retaliation by providing them information simply because they acted as decent human beings. So could the Viet Cong. Through their breakfast guests, the Americans anticipated only one benefit: escape from washing dishes.[4]

When he says they held no illusions, West is perhaps being fairly pointed. And he is right to. When “herbivores” within our military and among our politicians expect to win friends by behaving like decent people – by not being a Westmoreland, you could say – they set our troops up for bitter disappointment and death. If you expect not to be stabbed in the back, just for being a nice guy, then the first time you are stabbed in the back (and the second, and the third, and the fourth…) you will be that much more disgusted with the people you had planned on calling allies.

And you will be stabbed in the back. The Combined Action Platoon was, just as they expected to be. We too often forget that we are visitors in these people’s worlds – whereas they have to live there once we’re gone. Their situation is much too complicated for a few nice-guy gestures to change their world overnight.

But this, too, is true: As the Marines West served with in Vietnam consistently worked to do the right thing by the villagers they lived with and worked with – all the while kicking Viet Cong tail and taking names – the village as a whole came to accept them more and more. Though they did not count on any military advantage from goodwill, they did gradually reap those benefits even as they remained prepared to reap the opposite.

The success of the CAP program was not one of carnivores or herbivores, but one of human omnivores. Hardened warriors who treated those they didn’t have to destroy as equally human. [5]

 

 

[1] Congratulations if you caught the Spy Game reference. I couldn’t resist, however clumsy a connection it is to the “carnivores” and “herbivores” debate.

[2] One of the men convicted of a crime in the matter walked away from his commander rather than participate in the murder. The crime he was convicted of was, on his return, putting a painfully dying Iraqi out of his misery after another soldier botched the killing. Is this sort of kindness really a crime for a soldier, trained specifically to take life and to do so in an environment that requires split-second decisions?

[3] As to the issue of whether or not Steele is responsible for the murders outside Tikrit (a side issue to this piece but the central question of the New Yorker article), I think the answer is no. The build-up to those murders is a fascinating study of the fluid dynamics that are human communications and decisions, and it’s completely plausible that Steele’s rhetoric was one factor that, if removed, would have prevented those murders. But that by itself does not put them on his head, considering the premeditated nature of the killings and Steele’s actual (appropriate and noble) intent. I wish he had toned down a few talking points, but verbal nuance is not what we pay military commanders for.

[4] These excerpts are taken from pages 173-176 of the 2003 Pocket Books edition of The Village, which includes a new afterword describing West’s return to the village decades later. The people there still harbored fond feelings for the United States Marines, for whatever that’s worth.

[5] As a… ‘parting side thought’? on omnivorous warfare: Steele’s love for Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing is obvious even before Grossman’s name comes up in the New Yorker piece. Which is kind of funny because Grossman (who has popularized the “sheepdog” metaphor for military men) is something of an herbivore. Read “The Dark Power of Atrocity” (beginning on page 203 in the book) and then compare its perspective on battlefield conduct with Steele’s own. Hell, a subhead reads “I’ll Shoot You Myself,” giving Grossman’s personal disincentive for his men to kill those they don’t have to in a combat zone. In the end, Steele’s bravado – including having his men take part in a massive brawl prior to deployment so that Iraq wouldn’t be their first taste of violence – served a very real purpose of keeping his men alive, and Grossman’s served a very real purpose of keeping them sane. Both are terribly, terribly important to a successful and worthwhile (read: righteous) war. And in my opinion, both men need a few edges knocked off their particular rhetoric. These two ideals are not diametrically opposed.

“Play it Again, Dick,” first episode review

Why exactly am I writing this review? You know, I’m not really sure. It’s one of those things that has such a combination of instant fan base and niche market that if you’re interested in the show, you already know about it.

Via CWseed.com

Via CWseed.com

But it’s special in that this is the first time I’ve been more excited for the launch of a web series than anything playing on television. (Though there have been plenty of years when I’ve been excited for neither.) So the question becomes: Did the first episode live up to my expectations?

Short? Yup (eight minutes). Opportunity for self-promotion? Yup (it’s a “meta” show about fictionalized versions of the real actors, producers, and writers - of course there’s self-promotion going on). Lots of humor in the vein of “Party Down”? Yup. Completely enjoyable? Yup yup.

The only thing I was disappointed by: The New York Times promised me two episodes today. So far there’s only one. Sigh.

“Veronica Mars” fans should know – and of course, they already do know, though the reviewer over at NYTimes seemed put off by the discovery – that this doesn’t really feel like a continuation of that beloved show. Duh. Just duh.

It’s no accident that I mentioned “Party Down,” above, also by Rob Thomas and also featuring many VMars alum. That, like “Dick” is a sitcom, where “Mars” was a high-school noir. (Thomas wanted to put the emphasis on noir, whereas the networked wanted the emphasis on high school. By the end of season one they had their way, replacing “Philippa Marlowe, High School B—-” with the inferior but still much-loved “90210, Mystery Edition.”) Of course “Play It Again, Dick” will have more in common with the former.

To recap: Yes, it was good. Go watch it. And if you haven’t seen “Party Down” (and you’re OK with TV-MA language and sexuality that’s there for observational and philosophical reasons), you should do that, too.

A Path Forward on Gun Violence

There’s a video “public service announcement” making the rounds right now called “Demand a Plan to End Gun Violence” or, as Upworthy dubbed it, “They Packed More Pissed-Off Celebrities Than I Could Count Into A 1-Minute Video.” It is simply a number of celebrities saying names of mass shootings on U.S. soil and then saying “Demand a plan.”

Here’s the thing: There already is a plan. More than one. Wayne LaPierre wants more guns everywhere. John Oliver seems to want an Australian-style gun burning. A number of Democratic lawmakers want various cosmetic firearms features banned (and they got it from 1994 to 2004, when, as we know, no innocent person was killed with a firearm ever in the United States).

muzzHere’s the thing, though: We don’t need “a” plan. We need something that makes sense. Which, frankly, means we need to demand that both sides get together and talk things over like human beings. The NRA needs to stop being such a terrible bully, and a great many people – politicians, reporters, and average citizens – need to educate themselves on even the most basic terminology of guns so that the conversation can even happen. In short, we all need to behave more like this collection of Communists (and Reagan Democrats).

 

The Argument for More Guns

Even Wayne LaPierre is right twice a day, and here’s where: Gun violence is actually down as more guns hit the streets and more and more states allow people to carry concealed weapons legally. No, correlation does not equal causation. And no, concealed carry is not the only factor. Take Baltimore, where the murder rate plummeted when emergency medical technology converted massive numbers of (what would have been) yesterday’s murders into today’s attempted murders. But you know what? Bodymore, Murderland, as certain residents affectionately(?) call it, is not typical. It is the site of some of the strictest gun control in the nation (unconstitutionally so). In the nation at large, where concealed carry laws mean assailants don’t know who has legal means to return fire, the Department of Justice tells us that non-fatal firearm crimes declined 69 percent between 1993 and 2011. Or, put another way, they dropped even more precipitously than did firearm homicides.

Let me stress that again: Even though fewer people are actually buying guns than once did, the fact that a minority do so and carry them legally is enough to deter criminals from attacking those of you who don’t, and it doesn’t even produce a bump in accidental deaths. (If you follow that last link, you’ll see that it doesn’t actually get rid of crime – criminals just steal things when and where they don’t have to risk a confrontation. I’m more than OK with that.)

So yeah, gun violence in general is down. You know what’s up? The kind of mass shootings that make a big splash in the news. Which is presumably why only 12 percent of Americans think/know gun violence has markedly declined. Funny how these shootings happen in gun-free zones (schools, military bases, etc), where the shooter is guaranteed to have at least several minutes during which no ones fires back.

This is the great fallacy of gun-free zones: When you make it illegal to have a firearm at any given location, the people who care to follow the law will be unarmed; those who planned to commit felonies anyway will carry away. This is why I have great respect for Kansas’ unorthodox approach to gun-free zones. In many states, placing a “no guns” sign on the entrance to your premises makes it illegal to carry a firearm inside. But in Kansas, you have to go a step farther and use metal detectors and/or pat-down personnel to make it illegal. That is, you have to give legal gun owners some peace of mind that they aren’t the only ones unarmed.

Is it a perfect solution? No. The Washington Navy Yard has such security, but their shooter smuggled in a 30-inch-long shotgun for the second-deadliest military-base rampage to date. A motivated killer can and will smuggle whatever weapon he wants to use into whatever facility he so chooses. But the harder he has to work for it, the more likely he is to be caught before ending lives. And considering the idea that it probably (at the very least “arguably”) is an individual’s right to tell folks they can’t have a weapon on his property (however stupid it is to exercise that right), I think the Kansas model is an excellent compromise. May the rest of the nation take note.

 

Slaughter of the Innocents

But the rise of gun-free zones is by no means the only factor in increased mass shootings. There’s also the fact that pop culture has, for several decades now, been conditioning our kids with the same techniques militaries have always used to turn men into killers. (Please see Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing. All of it.) Why? Because it’s profitable. (And sometimes it just plain helps tell the story better. If you ever watched “Batman: The Animated Series,” you saw Batman and his pals miraculously dodge full-auto gunfire episode after episode. It’s revealed in the commentary that the creators couldn’t use more-plausible handguns because of “repeatability.” Kids were more likely to get their mitts on handguns.) This is a culture problem: Americans need to stop being so lazy about teaching their kids right from wrong.

You know what does go up – and always will go up – with the number of people who own guns? The suicide rate.  Anybody who says otherwise just doesn’t know how suicide works. People who plan it out and get it done are a tiny minority. Most suicides happen when impulse and means converge on the same moment, as on a bridge. And someone who has a firearm always has the means, and it’s one that’s a lot easier to employ on impulse than most any other, both physically and psychologically.

Each suicide is its own tragedy, but this doesn’t mean people don’t have the right to own such a dangerous tool. It does mean that anyone who struggles with suicidal thoughts should be persuaded not to exercise that right.

A similar issue, and in my mind the best argument for gun control, is that of child deaths. A lot of kids die every year because an adult was irresponsible enough to leave a firearm somewhere it could be accessed. We need stiffer penalties for people who allow their kids to negligently die. And we need a gun culture that stigmatizes those behaviors (and a variety of other “gun-nut” stupidities).

And then there’s the fact that, while having gun-toting folks walking invisibly among us makes society as a whole safer from violent crime, those with the guns are less safe than the rest of us. If people know you own guns, some of them may break into your home to take them. If you end up in a threatening situation on the street and show your weapon, your chances of dying by that same weapon are pretty dang high. Its very presence escalates the situation. Hell, almost a tenth of law enforcement officers killed on duty are done in with their own hardware, and they attend many more seminars on that situation than do most concealed-carry holders.

 

The Argument for More Gun Control

Despite those very real pitfalls mentioned above, I do believe in more guns. The deterrent factor is real, as is the human right to own a weapon. But I also believe in a lot more gun control.

Ever heard that an unenforceable law is no law at all? There’s at least a measure of truth to that claim, which is why it’s so important that the NRA et al quit making it impossible to enforce gun laws.

We have some good ones: Convicted of a violent felony? (Or, well, any felony.) Illegal to buy a firearm. Declared insane? Illegal to buy a firearm. Which is why anyone with a Federal Firearms License (that is, a professional legal gun seller) must run the purchaser through a national check center to see if they are a felon or otherwise barred from buying guns.

But person-to-person sales are regulated on a state-by-state basis only, and plenty of states have no background-check requirements. That is, it’s still illegal to buy as a felon, but the seller has no way of knowing who is or isn’t one. It’s called the “gunshow loophole,” but it might as well be called the “Walmart parking lot loophole,” because that’s where a lot of gun sales go down.

There’s a really simple solution to this: Stipulate that person-to-person sales take place with the participation of an FFL-holder to run that cursory check. There could be designated booths for this at gun shows, and elsewhere folks could meet at the gun store and be charged a nominal fee. In fact, that’s exactly how the law works when it comes to shipping firearms to buyers across state lines. And before you get upset about the idea that the feds will use their database to come after your guns, let me point out that there is no such database.

Will there still be folks who ignore that law? Of course. But those of us who wish to abide by it will have alarm bells the next time we decide we want to get rid of a Glock and find that the prospective buyer wants to “avoid all that hassle.” Those looking to purchase weapons illegally, too, will have to worry that each attempt to persuade a potential seller to violate the law will net them a visit from the police. It is a hassle, but the peace of mind that comes with it is more than worth it.

Those who, like Antonin Scalia, say such a law is useless because some will get guns illegally anyway don’t seem to realize that this logic would nullify all laws. (Perhaps it has escaped Justice Scalia that laws against murder don’t actually prevent every murder.) And when The Firearms Blog points out that there’s a surge of homemade zipguns in Australia – seeking to refute the notion that “all guns start out legal ­before they become illegal (via theft or rogue dealers)” – they don’t seem to realize that this really only shows how effective gun control can be. Most of those weapons are pitiful single-shots, likely as dangerous to the user as to any intended victim and completely useless past knife range. The fact that professional criminals are resorting to these speaks volumes.

And guess what: The vast majority of Americans want these background checks; it is only money from big gun companies flowing through the NRA and other lobby groups to lawmakers that keeps this from happening. Well, that and the NRA’s brilliance at subverting recall processes when lawmakers do follow the will of the people and the spirit of the law.

You know what else we should do on the gun-control front? License people to buy ammo. Seriously: When I walk into a store to buy a 50-count box of explosives, I should have to flash a card that says I’m old enough, have no violent felonies on my record, and have passed a test saying I know proper gun safety. It’s really that simple. We license people to use those deadly weapons called “cars;” let’s start doing it for the ones called “bullets.” The government’s stuck with the cleanup when we screw up with either, after all.

 

So There You Have It

Taking what makes sense from both sides, we can have a real path toward curbing gun violence – without infringing on basic rights. Sure there’s plenty more to debate in the details. (Ten-round mag-capacity limits? I’m not a fan, for a couple of reasons. But anyone who tells you it doesn’t matter because “mag changes are so fast” has no clue what a shooting looks like.) And we should have that debate, once we’ve agreed to strive for a framework that vilifies neither gun-toting wackjobs nor hairless liberal cowards.

A different kind of expanding bullet

It’s January, which means firearms manufacturers are trotting out their latest gadgets for the annual SHOT Show. (That stands for “Shooting, Hunting” and “Outdoor Trade,” or so I hear.) A friend texted me a week ago that Glock’s finally bringing out a single-stack in something other than .45, so I doubt anything else is in for much attention.

Still, when I saw the headline “Expanding Bullet Set for Display,” I did a double take at the sheer inanity of it. Expanding ammo, be it hollow points or soft points, has been around for a long time.

I was not expecting this:

Via Kit Up!

Via Kit Up!

Yes, that’s a round that expands to 14 inches in about 1/100th of a second past exiting the muzzle. Hardly mundane.

There’s only one thing to say to that.

Via Columbia Pictures.

Via Columbia Pictures.

Sam’s War

sam

Sam as she appeared in the series three premiere, “The French Drop.”

With the final (and this time they mean it, apparently) episode of “Foyle’s War” airing stateside in six days, it seems only appropriate to pay tribute to the show’s real star character. And, as writer/creator Anthony Horowitz revealed to the Mail some months ago, it’s all been about Sam Stewart.

That’s right. DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) may get the title and the most screen time, but the show wouldn’t exist but for Norah FitzGerald, the WAAF driver who would later become Horowitz’s nanny and the inspiration for Samantha Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks).

If you haven’t seen “Foyle’s War,” it’s a cozily paced mystery series set in WWII England. Foyle’s the taciturn Hastings police chief who’d rather be fighting the war than minding the home front, but who is also too philosophically moral to turn a blind eye the compromises being made in his district. Fleshing out the regular cast are Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), a detective sergeant who lost a leg in Norway, and Sam, the inquisitive Mechanised Transport Corps driver sent to aid the understaffed police force because the old-fashioned Foyle doesn’t drive.

Over the show’s eight seasons, Horowitz has seen to it that it’s been downright educational, with its scripts peeking around corners to reveal little-remembered – and, in some cases, little-known even at the time – aspects of The Good War. Added to that, it would be difficult not to develop affection for the understated characters brought so fully to life by Horowitz’s pen and the actors’ skills. And it’s all thanks to Norah FitzGerald.

“Fitzy used to tell me all these stories about her time in the war, to do with driving and drinking and young men,” Horowitz said. “She had a very happy war. I guess that’s where Foyle’s War began, with the memory of all these stories she told me.”

Firewater in space

The script came out of a drunken round robin in Oregon, and it’s… not bad. It’s a fairly standard parody that probably wouldn’t have made me laugh until acted out by drunk people. Which is exactly what happened, converting it into brilliant comedy. (Or at least something I willing watched several times, chuckling all the way.)

These must be some pretty skilled actors sober to nail the parody drunk, too.

Mr. Wilson’s next experiment should be to make a short with a drunk film crew.

Lanue on the economy

A good mess?

Our economy is a mess. We lucky U.S. nortes are a lot wealthier than folks in other countries, so it could be argued that, relatively speaking, we have a good economy. The fact remains that, good or no, it’s a mess.

It’s convoluted, and it doesn’t seem to be making many of us happy. As for the unhappiness out there, there are plenty of studies showing that a population’s overall satisfaction is less about how poor its average member is than about how unevenly that wealth is distributed. The guy who lives in South America who can’t afford a refrigerator or a car but who never meets anybody who can is generally going to be more satisfied with his financial situation than somebody with a decked out kitchen and an old jalopy who has to bump shoulders with people who get rid of big-screen TVs because of a couple of dead pixels. But we already figured that, right?

As for the convolution, a lot of that has to do with lawyers and regulations. To way oversimplify what all of you already know: The left has simple faith that regulations will protect the little guy from being taken advantage of, and the right has simple faith that regulations will just make everything run less smoothly. Instead of working together to make sure that regulations passed actually do help rather than hurt, they spend their time trying to step on each other’s toes. All the while, both sides are working to keep the lobbyists and lawyers happy – the lobbyists and lawyers who are paid big bucks to make sure that their bosses can get around whatever regulations are put into play.

The result? The little guy gets bogged down with extra regulations, while his jumbo-sized competitors – the ones who have the money to outsource the paperwork to the same legion of lobbying lawyers who shaped the legislative process – get a guided tour through all the loopholes that let them ignore the spirit of the law.

“Free” trade

But as much as I would like to see some effective, streamlined regulation going on – say, some accountability for the bankers playing Russian roulette with all that electronic currency floating around – I think some of the most fundamental ills with our economy boil down to trade.

Tariffs used to be a big deal in this country. Tariffs are basically hefty import taxes placed on goods from outside the country, and their purpose is simple: keep jobs inside the country when possible. Tariffs supplied the vast majority of the federal government’s revenues, too, until the income tax was introduced in the early 20th century.

Tariffs are the opposite of free trade, which for my purposes here, is simply the freedom to trade with whomever, wherever, without restrictions. (Okay, so embargoes are the real opposite of free trade.)

For the last hundred years, America’s government has been moving away from protectionism (using tariffs and other regs to protect local workers) and toward free trade, picking up more and more momentum as it’s done so. Economist and Reagan-adviser Milton Friedman made the case for free trade by equating a nation’s economy with a household: If you send less money out for more stuff, you have a net gain. In his eyes, protectionism put value on currency where it should have put value on goods: Gold coins and paper money are most valuable in that they can be traded for things we actually use, so keeping more money circulating here at home, when it could be buying more stuff by going overseas, was illogical.

The other major case for free trade is that it allows more competition, challenging local businesses to innovate so that everyone involved wins. If Detroit had started building cars that lasted as long their Japanese counterparts did in the 1980s, the reasoning goes, maybe the American car industry wouldn’t be dying. More Americans would have car-manufacturing jobs, and more people in more economic brackets would have working cars.

Service jobs and “Save money, live worse”

For several years now, I’ve been hearing more and more about how the U.S. needs to focus on raising its kids to do service jobs, rather than manufacturing. This is an admission, from all sides, that when it comes to manufacturing, we can’t compete with the international market. Any service job that can’t be handled via internet or phone, however, can’t be exported.

We can’t compete in manufacturing, with any level of innovation, because international competitors aren’t cutting prices through innovation. They’re cutting prices through serfdom. China’s minimum wage of 55 cents an hour is routinely ignored, and because many workers can’t afford to live elsewhere, much of their hourly wage goes back to the company for the room and board that looks suspiciously like something out of a Holocaust movie. (Here’s a case study in how Christian merchandise gets made over there.) But even if China’s labor laws stop being for show and start being enforced, do we really want our workers to compete for the right to get paid 55 cents an hour?

At the moment, Walmart’s slogan is “Save money, live better.” Considering that the money savings come from exporting jobs to China, that slogan epitomizes Milton Friedman’s economics. And, in a way, it’s working. Thanks in no small part to presidents Nixon and Clinton’s greeting Chinese imports with open arms, the average American has a lot more crap cluttering up his house. The net gain to our economy has been a lot of stuff. But it’s also helped make our economy top-heavy. Everything we buy puts money into the pockets of the big-wigs doing the importing, but very little of that money is sent back to us. When the money does come back, it’s for stocking the shelves at Walmart, not for building better blenders. Unemployment skyrockets, jobs go to people overseas who don’t actually get paid, and the unparalleled wealth of the United States gets more and more concentrated in the top two percent, the ones who are exporting the jobs to slaves.

Now, I’m not blaming the wealthy for our messed up economy. The nation as a whole has decided that the short-term payoff of a fancier microwave oven for less money trumps other considerations. Now, there is an increasing movement of young people who think the “cool” thing to drink is “fair trade” coffee they know was made for a living wage, and the cool thing to wear is fair-trade threads. God bless them for it. But the problem is so endemic to the American economy that I don’t see that as a fix. Unless I’m wrong, people will keep buying the cheaper stuff, not just out of selfishness but out of the belief that their voting dollars won’t make a difference because others will take the deal if they pass it up.

The solution?

I think the solution is simple. Whether we’ll ever get there or not… Well, I can hope.

There are two sides to the problem: First, exporting jobs to be done by serfs and slaves is wrecking our economy by creating a huge wealth gap that will eventually reduce us all to serfs and servants, yes. But second, and far more important, is the fact that by accepting these cheap goods, we are morally responsible for enslaving people around the world.

The simple solution is to stop it. And if we’re not going to do that as individuals, we have to do it as a collective. Which is kind of the point of a representative government: “We the people” have the option of setting the agenda and having it enforced from the top down. Self-imposed regulation, in its own way.

We need to pass a law that would simply say “We’re not taking goods that victimize other people or ourselves. Goods that are made by taking advantage of people are now illegal in this country.” And then we need to enforce it, either by setting up a government agency to investigate this stuff or letting the non-profits that would love to help more dog it for us. Stepping-stone bills like the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act have been introduced before, but they keep dying. This needs to stop.

We might have to live with the dead pixels in our TV screens for a few extra years, but it’ll be worth it.

Sorry.

My apologies for promising a series of political posts and then immediately going silent after just one. I had to deal with a friend’s minor medical emergency (minor in that it appears there will be no long-term effects), and then go on the road for a couple of days.

More posts are on their way, I promise. First, I need to get some sleep.

 

Police as socialist tools

Our government is fundamentally socialist.

I suppose I should discuss the term a little bit before launching into the main body of what I have to say. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of socialism says that it’s “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods,” and the second says that in a socialist system “there is no private property.” But that doesn’t seem to be what socialism means anymore.

Today, it seems I can’t go near a news outlet without hearing about how such-and-such policy is socialist, and such-and-such policy is never actually about taking away private ownership or putting production into the government’s hands. Our working, public definition of socialism has changed, for better or worse, leaving the official dictionary definition to the realm of full-on communism.

So here I go again:

Our government is fundamentally socialist.

I’m not talking about President Barack Obama. I’m not even talking strictly about the federal government. I’ll bet you that your local city and county governments are socialist at their core and have been for years.

Law-enforcement agencies like your local police department and sheriff’s office come to mind. Police are the most “establishment” of the public establishments, a bastion of good old-fashioned conservatism. But their mandate is to protect and serve. At the police department’s foundation is the idea that government exists for the people. That the people who are too weak to protect themselves physically and too poor to hire bodyguards have a fundamental right to protection from assault, theft, etc.

Police departments exist because our nation decided a long time ago that it believed in the redistribution of wealth in the form of fundamental services. If that’s your definition of socialism, and if you believe your tax dollars should fund police and that police should protect the poor as well as the rest of us, then the question of whether or not you’re a socialist has only one answer: You’re a socialist.

It may prove useful to keep that in mind the next time you hear a pundit calling some policy or other “socialism” and expecting it to be condemnation enough. Other questions remain, of course: How much socialism is a good thing? Is this policy intelligently executed socialism or is it as stupid as a bag of rocks? These are not just good questions, they’re important ones. They deserve good, honest, open-eared discussion. So let’s stop expecting the word “socialism” to end the discussion.